Thirty years ago today my dear son, my only child, was born, inaugurating a joyful period of parenthood.
Looking back, that time is foreshortened, but thinking back on it, what riches are contained in every moment! At the time, sleepless, frenetic, I worried, like many a new mother, over just about everything: that he might fall over and cut himself, eat something off the floor, touch the hot wood stove, get poisoned by nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, get corrupted by watching commercial television. Now I try to savor in retrospect the precious moments of his childhood that flew by so fast. His first words, first song, first joke, his nature revealing itself as he grew and matured.
And me, where was I at the time? Somewhere, in a blur. Between washing nappies (yes, we used cloth diapers) while the baby was napping, jumping up and singing him back to sleep every time he so much as stirred, growing and cooking healthy food, washing dishes, shoveling snow, writing newspaper stories and graduate school essays, shoveling more snow, just trying to keep up with life.
No, that’s not true. There was so much more: singing in a church choir and in an a cappella group as well as with the children at the farm, taking many, many trips to the children’s room at the library, making myself learn to enjoy the outdoors in winter (when every instinct told me to huddle by the fire), maple sugaring, ice-skating, harvesting tomatoes, throwing birthday parties, helping organize a cooperative day care group, visiting the loving grandparents. And that was only before he was five, while we were still living on the farm. Schooldays followed, thirteen years of them, with their attendant round of activities. Homework, clubs, piano lessons, sports practices, drama performances. Summers, blessèd summers, long, lazy, and hot, when my mother would book a week at Cape Cod for us all. Trips to India and England to meet and bond with cousins, uncles, great-aunts. And meanwhile for us parents, graduate school, jobs, long-distance commuting, our own parents retiring and moving to live nearby—in the case of my in-laws, next door. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary: the life of a householder.
All too soon that stage of life was coming to an end and another beginning. Our son was a college student, living away from home except for during the holidays; his parents, what they aptly call empty-nesters. There were the frantic college purchases (textbooks, extra-long twin sheets for the dorm-room beds), the dreaded FAFSA forms to fill out every year, the inevitable emotional crises, some serious, others storms in a teacup. Meanwhile at home we were looking around and noticing the cracks we hadn’t had time to attend to during the earlier parenting years. We were middle-aged; our parents, unbelievably, growing old.
Extended family and friends were still a major part of our lives: summer barbecues, birthday parties, wedding anniversaries—first my in-laws’ then my parents’ fiftieth. Our son was graduating from college and moving to the Big City, but still very much in need of his home base. And our parents, so long the pillars of strength that we had leaned on, were starting to need our support, although they were (and still are) reluctant to admit it. We were becoming the sandwich generation. While many of my friends have already retired, become grandparents, entered an active and productive Third Age, that increasingly long period after middle age and before old age, I still have many years to go before retirement.
Today when my son has completed thirty, my father is ninety, and I, sixty years old.
When I was a schoolgirl we had to recite that set piece from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, All the World’s a Stage. Because I was a skinny-legged child and my tights (leggings, they would be called today) were always baggy at the knee, my teacher used to tease me by likening me to the “lean and slippered pantaloon” of the sixth age, whose “youthful hose” were a “a world too wide for his shrunk shank.” Now I approach that age myself; but increasingly realize, though not with the cynicism of Shakespeare’s character Jaques, that in all these roles I am playing a part. While I inhabit them, they are not me.
Even as I continue to be a mother, daughter, wife, teacher, caregiver, I find myself wondering what my new task is. On the day my son was born he gave me the most precious gift I have ever been given and a role that I will inhabit forever. Today, as he turns thirty, he gives me another gift, inaugurating a new period with a new challenge: to slow down, take a deep breath, and renew my acquaintance with my self.